Artwork By Esther Bret
When I was 9 years old, my parents took me and my brother on a trip to New York. We were thrilled; finally, the American lifestyle that we had been seeing on MTV and Disney Channel for years was upon us. We did not just want to see the American lifestyle though, we wanted to experience it. In a typical North American manner, experiencing an American lifestyle inevitably meant consuming American products. Indeed, our first stop after the 9-hour flight from Vienna to JFK airport was a pharmacy, where my brother and I stocked up on Hershey’s chocolate, the treat of our childhood dreams. However, as soon as we tried a piece of the chocolate bar, we found ourselves not only surprised but truly disappointed: American chocolate does not taste like chocolate at all. It is so acidic and bitter, it almost has notes of vomit.
As it turns out, our experience was not uncommon: foreign consumers tend to find the taste of American chocolate repulsive. The reason for that is the same as why we have duct tape and the GPS: war.
Milton Hershey founded Hershey’s chocolate in 1884 in an effort to make milk chocolate, a product previously considered exclusive to upper social classes due to its extensive production process, accessible to everyone. However, if that was going to happen, Mr. Hershey needed to reduce costs on many levels. Firstly he switched his company’s mode of production, implementing a Henry Ford type assembly line which would lower the cost of production. Secondly, Hershey concerned himself with the accumulation of ingredients. As the name suggests, a milk chocolate bar’s main ingredients are chocolate and milk (and its byproducts). Therefore, Hershey’s started using low-quality cocoa but needed to find a way to alter its current usage of milk. At the time, fresh milk could only be legally stored for up to 72 hours, rendering the process of mass-producing, distributing, and selling milk chocolate very stressful, considering that time was against it.
The solution was found in a process known as Lipolysis, in which enzymes that come in contact with milk break down fatty globules into smaller, more stable fat molecules. At the essence of Lipolysis is the compound butyric acid which would ensure a greater shelflife, but at the cost of partially souring the milk. Butyric acid can be found in different cheeses but also in our digestive system, which is why we associate its “taste” with that of vomit.
So, Hershey’s chocolate changed its mode of production, and in doing so, became a top competitor in the market for chocolate bars.
When the United States of America entered World War II following the Pearl Harbour attacks, Hershey’s chocolate signed a contract with the US government to provide soldiers with their product overseas. When soldiers returned from war, they had become accustomed to the taste of Hershey’s chocolate, and eventually, the American consumer expected chocolate to taste a certain way. Due to public demand, American chocolate manufacturers adopted the milk transformation process, hence the uniformization of this specific chocolate production process.
Cidell, J. L., & Alberts, H. C. (2006). Constructing quality: The multinational histories of chocolate. Geoforum, 37(6), 999-1007.
D’antonio, M. (2006). Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s extraordinary life of wealth, empire, and utopian dreams. Simon and Schuster